This weekend, David Marden wrote to ask the following: I am a real estate agent and a mortgage broker… I am always on the phone and the computer looking at rate sheets and checking email. Is there a really good phone that I use for email and web? Most of the phones I have seen have limited or slow access. Should I buy a phone and a laptop, or is there a really good phone out there that does it all?
This is a really good question. Cell phones have made leaps and bounds in recent years, but have they gotten to the point where they can replace your laptop completely? Tough question, and it depends on how you use your computer when you’re on the road.
Let’s start with the advantage of the phone. This is easy. The phone is far more portable, easier to access for on a whim (no booting and shutting down), and has a battery that will last all day at least. You won’t have to find a place to sit down and pop open the lid, which can be a huge inconvenience. (I’m assuming you’d get a 3G WAN card for the notebook, also, meaning you would be able to get access anywhere without being near a Wi-Fi hotspot.)
Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Well, let’s consider the (substantial) drawbacks.
First is screen size. This is the big problem, in my mind. Even the biggest of cell phone screens are minuscule when compared to even the smallest of laptops. Resolution is small, too: Most cell phones have resolutions of 480 x 320 pixels or less, often half that in both dimensions. What’s that mean for you? Bottom line is that if you’re trying to pull up a high-res picture of a house you’re about to visit, or even a shot of your kids, you won’t have access to nearly the amount of detail you would get with a laptop. This alone could be a deal killer for jobs which rely on visual information.
Next is input. Most smart phones include a full QWERTY keyboard and some sort of pointing system to control the focus (like a mouse). The Sidekick III has a trackball. Some smart phones, like the Treo, have touchscreens you can use with a stylus. If you’re comfortable typing with your thumbs, this probably isn’t a big deal. But don’t expect to hit the 70 words per minute you might be able to crank out on your PC.
How about speed? Good news here: 3G cell phones aren’t terribly slow in comparison to a laptop using a 3G card. And that makes sense: They both access the same cellular networks to transfer data back and forth. The difference comes with Wi-Fi: With a laptop, you can hop into a Starbucks and get a much better wireless experience over the higher-speed Wi-Fi network. Only a few cell phones offer Wi-Fi radios, so you’ll largely be relegated to the cellular network. Still, since Wi-Fi service almost always costs extra anywhere you go, you might be tempted to stay with your 3G service anyway, since most users pay for unlimited access by the month.
Finally, don’t forget attachments. It’s one thing to read text email, it’s another thing to edit Word documents and spreadsheets on a cell phone. Many phones only allow read-only access to attachments, so if you’re determined to go this route, make sure you get a model that can edit documents as well as view them. And don’t expect all the features you get on your PC: Editing docs via phone is always a stripped-down affair in comparison to a full-featured desktop suite.
So that’s the gist. Next you really have to ask yourself how comfortable you are with these drawbacks vs. the convenience of not having to carry a laptop with you. But more importantly: Ask yourself how much time you’ll save. Are the minutes you’ll save in opening and closing a laptop and finding a place to sit down really worth it? Or will you lose that time anyway by hunting-and-pecking your way on a tiny keypad instead of touch typing on a real keyboard? These are questions that only you can answer, but I will offer my impressions of how most ultra-mobile users operate: They still stick with both smart phone and laptop, using the laptop whenever it’s possible and the phone when it isn’t. Does that mean you’re probably stuck with two devices? Yeah, it’s probably still a sad fact of life.
By Christopher Null